As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan weighs whether to build the Purple Line or scrap the multibillion-dollar project, he will need to consider how a new light-rail line benefiting the D.C. suburbs would play in rural areas where he promised voters key to his election more money for roads and bridges, political observers say.
The decision, which is expected any day, will force Hogan to navigate long-running political tensions of urban vs. rural and transit vs. roads. But there is a twist: The Republican who campaigned on the need for fiscal austerity and job growth must decide whether to build a $2.45 billion light-rail line in two heavily Democratic counties that shunned him in the election but are economic engines for the state.
In addition, the national attention brought to Maryland because of the recent riots and demonstrations in Baltimore has created another wrinkle. Hogan is also considering whether to build a $2.9 billion light-rail Red Line in Baltimore. While the city is not Republican territory by any stretch, political analysts say that Hogan might push aside the Purple Line to promote the Baltimore project as a way of showing his new national audience that he is focused on investing in the city’s low-income communities. The Red Line would bring jobs and economic benefits to impoverished West Baltimore, supporters say.
Although the Hogan administration has said the Purple Line decision will be a financial one free of politics, political observers say it’s virtually impossible to separate the two.
“Politics is about who gets what and when and how,” said John Bullock, a political science professor at Towson University. “It’s what is your base of supporters, and how are they going to react? It’s inherently political.”
Public officials and business leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties say a 16-mile Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton is key to their plans to focus growth, attract jobs and rejuvenate aging suburbs. Supporters say it would also provide an important east-west link missing in the suburban D.C. rail network.
Critics, including Hogan, say the Purple Line — as now planned — would be too expensive and would soak up too much money from other needs, including clogged roads and deteriorating bridges. As part of his consideration of the project’s future, Hogan has ordered a cost analysis to see whether the line can be built more cheaply.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said the governor is skeptical of supporters’ studies concluding that the Purple Line would bring tens of thousands of new jobs. He said that Hogan believes in a “balance” of money for transit and roads and that politics is not part of the Purple Line calculus.
“The governor has said many times he feels there’s been neglect to highways and bridges, and he wants that addressed,” Rahn said. “I’ve not heard a single whisper of ‘Oh, they didn’t vote for us.’ This is about allocating state resources to statewide needs.”
How much money the state would have to spend on the Purple Line would not be known unless Hogan continues the bid process. Bids are due in August. The state has told the Federal Transit Administration that it could contribute up to $738 million. An additional $900 million would come from federal aid, and the companies that won the bid would help finance much of the rest through a federal loan and private financing. The state would pay back the private sector’s financing costs over time.
Hogan would face criticism should he kill the project, even if doing so would save money. In addition to securing a recommendation for nearly $1 billion in highly competitive federal grants, the state has spent $208 million on engineering studies and early design work. Planning has also entailed 13 years of hashing out the details by public officials, government workers and residents. The project has passed its federal environmental review.
“It’s hard to make the case that you’re making good fiscal decisions if it looks like you wasted money and time spent trying to get these projects off the ground,” said Bullock, the Towson professor.
Also in the Purple Line’s favor politically: Hogan, Bullock said, knows that to win reelection, he would at least need to remain competitive in the Democratic strongholds of Montgomery and Prince George’s.
But Todd Eberly, chair of the political science department at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said Hogan also knows that rural voters were key to his November victory over Democrat Anthony G. Brown. In parts of Southern and Western Maryland, Eberly said, Hogan clinched as much as 80 percent of the vote. Beyond wanting to win reelection with those same voters, Eberly said, Hogan will eye their support for Republican legislative candidates.
“Those are just astronomical margins in an election, and those are the folks who want road and bridge money,” Eberly said. “For folks on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland looking at light rail — they often see that as money that won’t help them in any way, shape or form.”
Hogan is probably also hearing from people such as business leaders at a recent Calvert County Chamber of Commerce breakfast who asked Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert) when the state would replace the aging and congested Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge. Money for a new bridge, O’Donnell said, was delayed under Hogan’s predecessor, Martin O’Malley (D). Hogan won Calvert County with 70 percent of the vote.
“The O’Malley administration prioritized mass transit over roads and bridges over the last eight years,” O’Donnell said. “That was a distinct shift away from a balanced approach. We’re just saying to get it back to balanced. The Purple Line needs to wait its turn.”
O’Donnell also bristled at the idea that the state would have to subsidize the Purple Line’s operating and maintenance costs long term, as governments do for most transit systems. Those costs are estimated at $55 million annually. Fare revenue on other state-run transit systems covers just over a quarter of their operating costs.
“The drywaller in Calvert County making $40,000 would be subsidizing the $100,000 government worker to take mass transit,” O’Donnell said. “That’s not right.”
Purple Line advocates say they can overcome local political pressures on Hogan by showing that the line’s economic benefits would reach far beyond the D.C. suburbs.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a Purple Line supporter, said a rail line would attract employers, help workers reach jobs and spark investment around stations in two counties that have nearly one-third of the state’s population. The transit line would connect Maryland’s spokes of the Metrorail system with Amtrak and MARC commuter lines and link job centers such as Silver Spring and Bethesda with the University of Maryland and neighborhoods.
“It’s probably the most important building project for the state that anyone can envision for the next 20 years,” said Miller, who also represents part of Prince George’s. “It’s so important to the economy of the state. To me, the politics aren’t important. To me, it’s the right thing to do at the right time.”
Miller said some of his constituents want more money for roads in Southern Maryland rather than for the Purple Line. Even so, he said, “You have to talk to people with a statewide view. You have to understand economic development and what the Purple Line means to Maryland’s future.”
Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), a Purple Line supporter who is running for Congress, said Hogan should consider the project as important to the state as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
“I’m convinced we’ve made a compelling case that the Purple Line is of immense economic importance to the entire state,” he said. “This is smart development. It really should not be politicized.”